Developing Great Writing Part III – Contrasting Characters

http_com.ft.imagepublish.prod.s3.amazonawsThis is the third in a series of blogs on using sentences to develop great writing. My previous two posts looked at sentences that contrast ideas and sentences that link details in a text to relevant contextual information outside of it. This post returns to sentences that contrast, but the focus shifts from contrasting ideas to contrasting characters.

Before half term I spent a bit of time looking at how complex sentences provide a useful structure for comparing and contrasting. Complex sentences make it possible to have the two aspects of a comparison held together within a single sentence. The grammatical flexibility of subordinate clauses also allows for the idea or thing being compared to come first or second – an important feature in terms of improving argument coherence and style.

My focus was comparing the initial presentation of the two main female characters in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora and Christine. Early in Act One, the two childhood friends are on stage together for a prolonged duration. They have not seen each other in years and during that time they’ve had very different experiences, which have impacted on their character and appearance.  Although the end goal is an open comparison across texts, I am keen to practise short, focused comparisons like these as and when they occur to breed confidence and fluency.

Last time round we discussed the sentence dynamics and used content generated in the lesson to model one or two examples on the board. On this occasion, I changed tact. Because I felt students now knew enough about the structure of complex sentences and we had already discussed some of the main differences between Nora and Christine, I got students to write a paragraph cold in response to the question, ‘How does Ibsen contrast the characters of Nora and Christine?’ The only stipulation was that in the set-up, students must use one of the contrasting sentence structures.

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After the lesson I took the paragraphs in and spent a few minutes at break looking over them. This gave me some useful pointers I could address next time. The first thing I did next lesson was to identify some small technical points in a handful of individual answers. Under the visualiser we quickly reviewed half a dozen or so responses, noting a couple of minor grammatical errors and celebrated some of points made. Students could quickly see different ways the sentences had been used and different positions the contrasts had come in the paragraphs.

I then zoomed in on one example in more detail, an answer I thought had an issue common to other responses. The paragraph I chose represented the best example of the point I wanted to make: that overloading contrasting sentences with too many qualifying clauses can lead to confusion and a loss of accuracy. Whilst I want my students to be able to express more complex ideas, I never want that complexity to come at the cost of clarity.

I first showed them the original sentence the student wrote.

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I then made a couple of changes to improve the phrasing, whilst retaining the underlying structure.

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The next step was to provide a graphic representation of the different components of the sentence. I wanted to visually show students how within the two sides of the original comparison, there were clauses containing additional analytical comments. This not only enabled the students to see how the sentence worked, but also how the additional information affected the clarity. Increasing the sophistication of the analysis diluted the strength of the comparison between Nora and Christine.

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The next slide – which stripped out the two analytical clauses – helped to visualise how the sentence had become much clearer. It was easy for students to see that in the reduced version there was less information to hold in mind. What’s more, by removing the additional analysis to later on in the paragraph, the contrasting points could now be seen directly next to each other. It was much easier to see and therefore understand the different ways the two women had changed over the years.

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I had wanted students to take these insights from the worked class example and apply them to their own paragraph, but there was not enough time left. I probably won’t return to this activity next lesson, but I have made a note to create further opportunities for practice the next time we work on comparative writing.

Thanks for reading.

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Developing Great Writing Pt.1 – Contrasting Ideas

Over the past few years I’ve developed a number of academic sentence structures to use with my students in an effort to improve their writing. I started with generic structures – I had supporting whole school writing in mind – but more recently I’ve developed more subject-specific sentences.

The main focus of my work on improving writing has been A Level, and the fact that I have taught the same syllabus for a number of years now has given me the opportunity to refine and review each year. Whilst I’ve had good feedback from students and teachers who use the sentences, I’m not convinced I’ve fully optimised either the structures or the way I use them in class.

In order to understand what I intend to do next, it might be useful to know a bit of what I’ve done already. In recent years I’ve left extended writing until year 13, believing that students write much better when they know more about the material. Most of year 12 has therefore been spent building up an understanding of the texts, which include Rossetti’s poetry, A Doll’s House and Hamlet

In the main this has proved successful – when students have started writing at length their sentences have been much more controlled and deliberate. I’m beginning to think, however, that their writing could be even better if they mastered a number of specific, high-leverage, sentence forms in year 12 too. I don’t want to lose the focus on knowledge development, but I do want to get them to practise applying some of that knowledge at the point of acquisition through small bursts of writing. I think this will help internalise certain sentence structures, which we can then build upon in year 13 when we turn our attention to synthesising knowledge and understanding in full essays.

So, this year I’ve started building in lots of deliberate practice with the subject-specific sentence structures that I have honed over the past few years. Sometimes we practise single sentences whilst at other times we write whole paragraphs, but with a particular focus on just one or two sentence constructions within that paragraph. I’m constantly using other effective strategies whilst teaching writing, such as including examples and non-examples, live modelling and co-construction with the students, dual coding and frequent oral rehearsal.

My first attempt is illustrated below:

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I spent a couple of minutes recapping students’ understanding of complex sentences, and then showed them how these sentence structures can be used to make simple comparison points, such as to contrast aspects of a character or theme. Through further exemplification we looked at how contrasts can come after the main clause or before it. We considered the stylistic and analytical rationales for each approach.

The next step was a bit of practice in class with the different sentence formulations, including punctuating the clauses correctly.

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What I like about this kind of activity is the ease with which I can get a handle on a whole class’s writing. I have 13 students in my class and I can look at the sentences that each of them produce in just a few minutes. I don’t really give them any detailed individual feedback, but rather look for trends across the class. The students like the quick turnaround and since they frequently make the same kind of errors, they can see the benefit of this approach.

And here are some of the results. Not perfect, of course, but there are some clearly focused comparisons, which we can build upon later on.

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I think my next focus is going to be on weaving in contextual details.

Thanks for reading.

Room for improvement, or what I’m working on this year

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I’d like to think I am a better teacher than I was say 10 or even 5 years ago. I’d like to think that every year I continue to improve. I’m sure that’s not always the case, and that some years I stagnate. I’m ok with that if my overall trajectory is up, which I think (and hope) it is. As I came to realise some years ago, after a certain point it takes a lot of time and conscious effort to make significant improvements to your practice. It’s bit by bit rather than wholesale.

Having a lighter timetable than some probably helps my development in the classroom. Not because I have an abundance of time to pontificate – I really don’t – but because teaching fewer classes makes it easier to retain a clearer focus on the change to my practice I am making and the impact it is having on my students. I have more bandwidth to make sense of my classroom.

I deliberately refer to change in the singular. Isolating just one variable in teaching, consciously honing it in light of feedback, is hard enough, let along managing multiple changes at once. I’m envious of those who seem able to pick up a new idea and run with it immediately. I prefer to see if the thing I’m working on really is making a difference, and to give it the time and space it needs to work. I also find it difficult to turn successes into habitual practice.

I’ve written before about our approach to professional learning, and the way that we set ourselves classroom-based targets at appraisal – one an overt craft goal; the other an inquiry question. We’ve moved this process on quite a bit since that blog, but the essence of our approach remains the same. We identify one pedagogical goal to work on with an instructional coach, and one question about an aspect of student learning that we undertake through disciplined inquiry.

This year my pedagogical goal is to improve my modelling of sentence structures to aid students’ analytical writing. It may seem odd that I’ve chosen to focus on what you’d think would be bread and butter for an English teacher. What makes it even more perplexing is that I’ve written on this topic before and spoken about developing sentence structures at conferences!

The thing is: whilst I think I’m much better at teaching students to write good sentences and helping them turn their good sentences into good paragraphs, I still don’t think I’m quite good enough. There is still a lot more I can do to help my students set up their ideas, move between their points and introduce and engage with judicious secondary material.

There are doubtless other things I could be working on, but I want to stick with the modelling and deconstruction of sentence structures. Too often we set ourselves improvement targets – whether formally or more personally – and we move to something new before we have truly honed the change or habituliased it into a daily routine. The emphasis is for breadth, not depth.

So, this year I am keeping the main thing the main thing. I am going to build on the gains I’ve already made in this area and make a conscious effort to identity a couple of techniques that I can add to my armoury every time I teach writing. Small little sustainable moves that will have a big impact on my students’ writing, and that I can perhaps share with my colleagues when I am ‘sure’ that they work.

I want to write about my efforts on this blog and to share any successes or failures. I may not get around to doing this, of course, but the intent is there.  And after all, it’s the thought that counts. I will call blogs relating to this focus ‘Developing Great Writing’, so you can choose to read about them or not if you want.

Wish me luck.

Mr Benn and the Anatomy of Extended Writing

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Me and Mr Benn

I was born in 1975, and the cult children’s animation Mr Benn was part of my childhood. I must have watched re-runs, since the only series made (which consisted of a paltry 13 episodes) was first aired in 1971. For the uninitiated, Mr Benn employed a recurring plot sequence. The bowler-hat-wearing protagonist would leave his home each morning and end up in a strange fancy dress shop, run by an even more mysterious shopkeeper. The nameless proprietor would show Mr Benn the delights of his shop and help him to choose a costume to wear for the rest of the episode. And here’s the rub: whatever outfit Mr Benn shimmied into out back, when he emerged was dressed appropriately for the adventure he was about to embark upon. Whether dressed as a cowboy, a spaceman or a knight, Mr Benn was always prepared.

In some respects Mr Benn’s costume-wearing shenanigans provides an interesting way of thinking about how many of our students approach academic writing. Like Mr Benn, they try and ready themselves for whatever adventure or challenge they are about to meet – they choose the most appropriate writing clothes for the written environment, or genre, they are about to inhabit. Yet perhaps this is where my metaphor breaks down, since what I think we want as teachers is for our students to dig much deeper than the superficiality of mere costume change. Wearing different clothes is essentially pretending, and what we surely wish for our students is for them to write in a more authentic, authoritative and genuinely academic fashion: to understand what it means to write like a historian, a scientist or a geographer.

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A way forward

I wonder if sometimes we might actually contribute towards this ultimately reductive approach to extended writing. I am thinking here of the pervasive use of wall displays of connectives, the over-reliance on crude acronyms for thinking about paragraph structures (PEE, PEED, PEAL, etc) and the use of snazzy laminated placemats for everything from proofreading prompts to convention cues. Whilst I am not entirely against some of these strategies – in the right context and used in the right manner – I am increasingly coming to believe that they are not fundamentally helping our students to write with more sophistication and precision.

What I believe is required is the explicit teaching of the deep structures that underpin academic discourse. Until address this more often and more systematically as part of our daily pedagogy through the interface of the teacher as the main resource in the room, I am not sure that our students’ extended writing will be demonstrably better. What we need to teach lies beneath the disguise of clothing and more within those anatomical structures that cannot be seen. If we get the teaching of these structures right students’ writing really will be able to meet the demands of writing with clarity and force.

The Anatomy of Extended Writing

Over the past few months I have attempted to provide the teachers in my school with a sense of what these structures might look like. This work has grown into what I am calling the Anatomy of Extended Writing. Drawing upon a wide range of different source material, and spending a disproportionate amount of my summer break pouring over a computer screen, I have devised an initial set of 18 modes of extended writing – functions or purposes of writing that I think are commonly used across subjects, such as Making Points, Evaluating the Significance of Data, Providing Definitions and Summarising Findings.

Within each of these modes I have identified a further set of specific sentence structures for each different facet of the overall function. So this might mean that for Reporting Results and Findings (coded 13.0), I have ‘commenting on specific visual data’ (coded 13.1), and ‘referring to the results from surveys’ (coded 13.6). As you can see, both the overarching mode and the specific sentence forms beneath them are numbered: the main modes are numbered 1-18, with each specific sentence type appended using a decimal point. I think this codification is crucial for helping to create a shared understanding of the different sentence functions. Over time, I see this coding system enabling teachers within and across departments to identify, teach and practise specific sentence constructions.

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Producing an Exemplar

The first step in turning these sentence forms into something tangible is for subjects to identify the specific genres they are trying to teach – the kinds of writing they are gearing their students towards producing. In most cases, there will only be one or two over-arching academic genres that operate within a discipline. In English Literature, I have identified three prevalent genres: the comparative study, the unseen analysis or appreciation and the critical opinion essay, where students have to engage in some form of opinion about a character, theme or relationship. There may well be others, but in the short term, these are going to be the ones for which we develop specific anatomies.

From the identification of genres, the next stage is to draw upon the sentence structures contained within each of the modes, and use them to produce exemplar writing – an excellent piece of work that provides teachers and students with a template for success within that academic genre. The important thing to remember here is that this exemplar piece of writing should be devised with the highest point at which the department teaches in mind. This model will effectively become the ultimate expression of excellence which can then, assuming that A level is the highest point the subject teaches, be worked backwards to produce exemplification of high standards at GCSE and Key Stage Three.

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Codifying Sentence Structures

These exemplar pieces of extended academic writing or anatomies will then be coded, through reference to the sentence structures identified in the modes of writing. It is my hope that over time my initial list of 18 functions will grow and that within these functions additional coded constructions can be established, effectively creating a continual on-going database. The point of codification is twofold. to establish a consistency of approach towards teaching extended writing both within departments and across subjects and key stages. It has always struck me as perverse that with one teacher a student learns to structure their writing using a hamburger metaphor, another with some derivation of PEE and another with something else entirely.

This term I have spent a bit of time teaching my A level students some of these sentence forms. For instance, we are currently preparing for a 3,000 word comparative essay, and to help better structure my students’ writing I have been relentlessly getting them to practise writing the opening manoeuvres of a paragraph. In the past I have been rather too guilty of focusing on deconstructing whole texts, when mine and my students’ time would probably have been better served in honing specific sentence forms. In many respects, this approach to developing extended writing through focusing on sentence construction is not a million miles away from Doug Lemov’s Golden Sentence, David Didau’s Slow Writing and some of the excellent work produced by the likes of Andy Tharby and Chris Curtis.

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‘One True Sentence’

It seems that developing students’ understanding of the sentence is currently where a number of educators are converging, which to me makes perfect sense. Two of my favourite writers of the Twentieth Century are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: both writing around the same time and addressing similar Modernist concerns. Yet to read their writing you may well think they were poles apart – the one writes with an ornate flamboyance and overly decorative style, whilst the other strips everything back in the hope of finding the ‘one true sentence.’ Beneath this superficial difference seems to me a more striking similarity. Both writers were obsessed with the sentence: in finding out the optimum construction for conveying meaning or truth. Where Fitzgerald believed in more, Fitzgerald strove for less.

I am not suggesting that the Anatomies of Extended Writing are about finding the ‘one true sentence’. What I am suggesting is that the sentence is the unit of language we should pursue with our students to help them better understand and produce the real thing, rather than having to pretend through dressing up!

‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ F. Scott. Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Further Resources:

Here is a link to my Teaching and Learning Presentation

Here is a link to a PDF version of The Anatomy of Extended Writing